I was recently asked to speak at a waste prevention event organised by the London and Southern Counties Centre for CIWM.

Since I’m not a waste management expert, I wasn’t immediately sure what I could add. But it soon became apparent that waste management is a growing sector that’s changing fast: from the traditional models of collecting and treating our waste, to helping us prevent waste in the first place.

The transformation of this industry means that waste managers are facing a host of new challenges that will require them to develop new, ‘soft’ skills to add to their technical ones. Many of those will be in pursuit of one goal: behaviour change.

I had a great day hearing success stories of waste prevention programmes, learning how to nurture successful partnerships, and discovering the ‘art of management’. (Intrigued? You can download the speaker slides here.)

I spoke about the lessons I’ve learned managing change in large organisations, including the importance of understanding – really understanding – the motivations of the people you want to influence. It’s a vital step whether your goal is to persuade middle management to work towards your targets, convince your children to respect their bedtimes, or encourage householders to send less waste to landfill.

So I was delighted when one of the other speakers presented a project that had carried out its behaviour change research beautifully.

Let’s Get Cooking is a programme of over 5,000 cookery clubs across England that teaches basic cooking skills through workshops of around 30 people. It targets new mums and people who have just left home (life events when we’re most open to developing new eating habits) and has been running successfully for a number of years, helping participants eat more healthily and save money.

Zaya Fullerton of Let’s Get Cooking talked about the new partnership with the West London Waste Authority to add waste prevention guidance into the workshops.

For me, the most impressive part of Zaya’s presentation the effort the organisers took to understand the specific behaviours that can help prevent food waste, and to look beyond the obvious to find the best ways to help workshop participants change their behaviour.

1. They don’t just provide information, but look deeper

Some Let’s Get Cooking participants told the team that cooking from scratch would take hours. For those of us who know how to cook quick and simple meals, it’s tempting to see this as an information gap, and simply give the message that cooking from scratch doesn’t have to be time-consuming.

But without a good knife and some experience of chopping and peeling, cooking from scratch does take a long time; it’s not an information gap that needs to be filled, but a skills gap. So the programme focuses on basic cooking skills to ensure that cooking from scratch really is quick and easy.

2. They don’t fight the modern world, but make the best of it

Zaya reports that one of the big culprits in household food waste is ‘buy one, get one free’ (BOGOF) offers. They can be difficult to resist, especially for those on limited budgets who need to look for the best value they can – but the free food often ends up in the bin.

Importantly, the programme does not ask participants to stop buying food on BOGOF offers. Instead, workshops focus on planning skills such as shopping with a list, managing a freezer and reusing leftovers, so that the free items become part of meals rather than part of the waste stream.

3. They don’t take problems at face value, but challenge assumptions

Let’s Get Cooking’s research shows that people who are less confident in the kitchen can find themselves shopping for more food when there are meals ‘hidden’ in their cupboards. They ask the question “do you really need to go shopping?” and help workshop participants to identify the quick and healthy meals that are already there – things like omelettes, stir fries, pancakes and sandwiches – without feeling they should be following a recipe.

The results?

Almost 60% of people taking part in the programme say they’ve changed the way they cook and eat, and 98% say they have passed on what they’ve learned to others. It’s testament to the power of understanding your audience that they’ve had such brilliant success.

Well done, Let’s Get Cooking… I’m your newest fan!

Image: Café de Paris, Cooking Class by Jeff Kubina is licensed under CC BY 2.0